Break the Ice to Get Better Pictures of Your Subject

I’ve spoken with many photographers who tell me it’s difficult for them to make small talk while photographing people. Whether they are shooting portraits, corporate headshots or professional models, they have a reluctance to engage their subject on a personal level.

That’s unfortunate, because how your subject feels while you are taking their picture is often the difference between a ho-hum image and a great one. That feeling, even if fleeting, is something that viewers experience when looking at the completed image. And it’s something you have the power to impact with small talk.

Engaging Your Subject with Small Talk

Let me be clear by what I mean by “small talk.” Telling someone to move their head this way and that does not count, because it’s just technical talk, as if the person in front of your camera were a posing doll. It’s not engagement.

A great example of engagement can be seen in the famous portrait of Winston Churchill taken by Yousuf Karsh. It wasn’t the posing that made the image one of the most reproduced in history; it was Karsh interacting with Churchill — a personal moment.

While some photographers feel absolutely at ease speaking with strangers, many don’t. They don’t know what to say and, as such, they limit themselves to a standard picture, mostly devoid of the subject’s personality.

It’s easy to hide behind the camera. In fact, the camera can act as a physical barrier, isolating you from the world.

When I started out, a good friend of mine told me that he considered me an observer rather than a participant. He thought I used the camera to watch the world through a viewfinder and, as such, stay disengaged.

I eventually learned that I needed to engage my subject to do a good job — even if they were quiet or disengaged themselves.

The Intimidating CEO

I once was hired to shoot a CEO portrait. My contact warned me in advance that this high-powered executive was a matter-of-fact guy who rarely smiled and didn’t like small talk.

Sure enough, when I walked into the CEO’s office to set up my lights, he just looked at me. I quietly extended the lightstands. When I was done, I began scanning the room for the best place to shoot.

Then, I noticed something interesting — that most of the pictures on the walls were of sailboats. So I asked him which one was his.

“None of them,” he said. “I’m between boats.”

Suddenly, he was no longer standoffish or intimidating; we were talking sailboats. While in conversation, I asked him to move about the room, so I could get various angles. As we were speaking, I gently pointed at the floor where I wanted him to stand and used gestures to indicate how I wanted him to move his body.

We talked boats all the way through the shoot, while I was packing up and as he walked me out the door.

Flash of Feeling

If you observe your subject’s environment and ask them questions about themselves, you can start a conversation that makes your job easier. You will reduce their stress and get them to think about something else — something they care about.

When discussing something personal, most people internalize their thoughts while their emotions play on their face. By engaging your subject in this way, you give yourself an opportunity to capture that sparkle or flash of feeling — turning a standard picture into a great image.

4 Responses to “Break the Ice to Get Better Pictures of Your Subject”

  1. Great post Dennis.

    When I get the feeling a subject is a bit apprehensive, I walk around the room and find something that I can connect with the subject. It may be military service, their love for astronomy or science, or I just get curious about what they do.

    When you are genuinely curious about their life, they respond in kind and are much more relaxed and will even try some crazy stuff you suggest.

  2. You can watch Karsh's recreation of that famous shoot -
    60 Minutes with Morley Safer

  3. Great advice!! Quality small talk is something that many photographers tend to forget because they are too focused on the technical aspects of the shoot.

  4. It’s also a matter of timing. . .
    Being photographed is an excruciating experience for self-conscious people (aren’t we all?)
    So the first thing they want to do is start talking about the very thing they’re looking at –your camera.
    If you let them engage you with equipment talk, you’ve lost the lead, and certainly control …plus the chance to let them talk about themselves.

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